DARPA Robotics Challenge Tackles First-Responder Issues
June 28, 2013

DARPA Robotics Challenge Tackles First-Responder Issues

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Some disaster environments are so dangerous due to terrain, chemical, nuclear or other factors that traversing them can be hazardous to humans.

Robotic first-responders could be the ideal way to handle these situations and a new computer simulation-based competition held by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had 26 teams from eight different countries sending their virtual robots after the Virtual Robotics Challenge (VRC) championship and a chance to compete in the next stage of the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC).

In the competition, simulated robots were asked to complete a series of tasks, such as driving a car, walking over rough terrain, attaching a virtual hose and turning a valve.

The simulator used to test the robots calculated and displayed their physical and sensory behaviors in three dimensions and real time. Virtual interactions between the teams and their robots were designed to replicate these interactions in an actual environment.

The teams in the competition were all instructed to use the Open Source Robotics Foundation's (OSRF) Gazebo virtual simulator because the virtual robots would later translate easily to actual metal-and-circuits robots, according to OSRF's CEO Brain Gerkey.

"If you come up with a winning solution for (the simulator), then the software that you've written for it should, for the most part, transfer to a physical robot in a physical environment and produce qualitatively the same results," he said.

DARPA officials had originally planned to award six humanoid robots to teams selected for a physical part of the competition to be held in December, but a little teamwork made things easier.

One of the advancing teams, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), based out of Caltech, decided to use its own robot and donated its awarded robot to another team from Lockheed Martin. Two other teams merged and received a robot from Hong Kong University, meaning members from nine initial teams could advance.

In the simulated part of the competition, scoring was based on how many tasks were completed, speed of completion and bits of communication used in robotics communication.

Of the nine teams advancing, the simulated robot from the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Florida performed the best, scoring 52 points. The next closest team was from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute from Worcester, Massachusetts, scoring 39 points. The lowest score for members of an advancing team was 23 points.

The physical trials to be held in December will be the second event of the DRC. DARPA announced it will be broadcasting teams' performance on its YouTube channel.

"The VRC and the DARPA Simulator allowed us to open the field for the DARPA Robotics Challenge beyond hardware to include experts in robotic software," said Gill Pratt, program manager for the DRC. "Integrating both skill sets is vital to the long-term feasibility of robots for disaster response.

"The Virtual Robotics Challenge itself was also a great technical accomplishment, as we have now tested and provided an open-source simulation platform that has the potential to catalyze the robotics and electro-mechanical systems industries by lowering costs to create low-volume, highly complex systems," he added.